Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices. Nathan Belofsky. Perigree Books: Penguin Group (USA). July 2013. 224 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780399159954.
The path to modern medicine is strewn with helpful and malignant practices, all of which are wondrous to the modern reader. The earliest theories most of us have heard are included which concern the four humors of the body believed to cause health and disease, blood, black bile, yellow bile or phlegm. In ancient Rome the first doctors were better known as “executioners.” Little was known about the human body and experimentation by analysis of internal anatomy was mostly forbidden until the time of Leonardo da Vinci when cadavers were used to study the body.
Add to that the superstitions of the ancient world where some believed illness arrived via the presence of ghosts, elves, or other malignant, demonic spirits. Therefore one could reason that such dangerous beings called for severe measures. But what does one think when considering the use of electric eels attached to the head to treat migraine headaches? Or what about using branding irons to cauterize parts of the head until bone was exposed? Sounds gruesome but burning away, on par with later uses of leeches to purge the blood of illness at the time seemed quite logical.
On the other hand, the well-known Hildegard of Bingen’s (12th Century) believed the origins of all sickness were linked to lungs, spleen and liver, a theory that many alternative medicine practitioners today follow with substantial success. Or one could read about the 19th Century practitioner Mandt prescribed a laxative for the first time for a patient who had swallowed a snake.
The terrors of surgery were quite real to almost all patients in the nineteenth century where gangrene, lack of anesthesia, and surgical errors proved deadly to far too many victims. More amazing is the fact that the “Great Anatomy Theater” was standing room only status as viewers vied to watch a live macabre removal of a groin tumor. So these stories progress, all the way to the well-known shock therapy and surgical lobotomy procedures used to cure or at least help patients suffering from mental illness.
Belofsky’s book is replete with amazing facts and stories of medical treatments intriguing those who practiced as doctors with and without formal training. What drives one’s interest in Belofsky’s history is the fact that there was no other way for medical practice to evolve but the “practice’ of trial and error. All, after all, truly wanted to “help” those in medical need. Strange Mystery… is shocking but intriguing and fascinating reading for all interested in medical care, as it is well-researched, readable for the average layman, and panoramic in scope. Highly recommended!